When I was a teenager, our family used to make the eighteen hour drive from Pennsylvania to Florida ever year for winter break. We’d pile our suitcases in the trunk, we’d load up with books and snacks, and my brother and I would cram into the backseat of my dad’s car, arm rest down in the middle like our own, personal, Berlin wall.
Mostly, what I remember about those road trips is that from about Virginia on, there was nothing on the radio but Christmas music; that if my brother’s head or leg or foot crossed over the line of armrest-demarcation, I would scream at him to get off my side; and that the license plate game got boring after about forty-five minutes. And oh yeah, I also remember swearing to myself that when I had kids of my own, I would never, ever, make them drive anywhere that could be reached by airplane.
I managed to keep that promise to myself for nine years. Since my kids were born, we’ve traveled quite a bit, and it’s always been on planes. Sure, we’ve gone to places closer to home, as well, but they’re always quick and easy drives, never more than two hours in the car. But over the last year or so, the idea of a family road trip has been appealing to me more and more. We’re all so busy with homework and activities and work and errands, and even though I limit screen time in our house, when you add in the cable TV and iTouches and Wii and Moshi Monsters and Skype, I feel like quality family time is really hard to come by. I kept thinking that on the road, it would just be us. No TV (I purposely don’t have an entertainment system in my car), no video games (my kids get nauseous playing in the backseat), no movies (ditto for watching on an iPad). Just the four of us, with lots and lots of time together. So I picked a three day weekend and my husband and I decided that we’d drive up to Napa, to visit his ninety-five year-old grandfather. Total driving time each way: seven hours.
Full disclosure: the night before we left, my husband and I panicked and tried to find last minute flights. The reality of seven hours in the car with two bored, whiny kids – then seven hours back just two days later – was starting to sink in. But it was too late. The flights were all sold out, and we couldn’t cancel. My husband’s grandfather was so looking forward to seeing us, it would’ve broken his heart if we told him we weren’t coming. So, we packed up enough snacks to last us two weeks, we charged the iPad and the iTouches just in case, we braced ourselves for the worst, and at nine o’clock in the morning last Friday, we took off for Napa.
The truth: it was so much better than I ever imagined. We had a great time, and although my kids didn’t watch movies or play any video games, the technology enhanced our trip in ways I never expected. Unlike the road trips of my youth, we had satellite radio, which kept us musically entertained through even the most in-the-middle-of-nowhere kinds of places. It also helped that we also were highly invested in finding license plates. In April, we’re going to Hawaii with another family for spring break, and we challenged them to the license plate game. The family that finds the most license plates between now and the time we go wins. The losing family takes the winners out to dinner, and the losers have to wear hula skirts.
Let me tell you, my kids were so motivated by wanting to see this other family’s eleven-year-old son in a hula skirt, it occupied them for almost four hours. And, there’s a really cool app that lets you keep track of what you’ve found and what you’re missing, called, appropriately enough, The License Plate Game. Another surprise: The New York Times app finally (shockingly) turned out to be invaluable. When the kids got bored, I pulled up the Times and used it to help us talk about current events. I couldn’t believe how interested they were in learning about the world. We spent an hour discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; I explained the differences between Republicans and Democrats; we talked about why some people care that Mitt Romney is a Mormon, and why I’m not voting for Michele Bachmann even though she’s a woman
Of course, it was long drive, and by the end of the trip on the way home, we were all getting antsy. There were some whiny moments, and it seems that two weeks worth of snacks is simply not sufficient. My back is still sore from sitting for so long, and just the thought of getting in the car again to go anywhere makes me want to scream. But would I do it again? Definitely. It really was some of the highest quality, quality time we’ve ever had together.